MLS playoff focus: Notes on Sporting KC ahead of Saturday’s first leg against Houston

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Ahead of Saturday’s first leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)

  • Aurelien Collin destined to score in the series?

As a center back, Aurelien Collin’s main mission is to make life miserable for opposition attackers. And he’s pretty good at it. Not just because Sporting had the league’s best defensive record this year (30 goals allowed in 34 games), but because he’s a real stinker at getting under his opponent’s skin.

Meanwhile, goals are a bonus for defenders – even if it doesn’t look that way lately for Sporting Kansas City’s French antagonist. Heck, it almost seems like he’s destined to score in this two-game series.

Collin (pictured) scored his team’s lone goal earlier this year as SKC snapped the Dynamo’s record 36-game home unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sporting was the first team to win in Houston since June of 2011, so that was a big strike for the irascible SKC veteran.

Collin has also scored twice in the 2013 playoffs, once in each of the club’s two matches in the just-completed home-and-away series against New England. His 69th-minute goal at the far post last weekend outside of Boston was nothing short of massive, even if SKC lost that night. It allowed his club to return to Sporting Park with a one-goal deficit, physhologically so much better than a two-goal margin to make up.

Collin opened the scoring just before halftime of Wednesday’s return leg.

(MORE: PST match preview, Sporting KC at Houston)

  • Yellow card warning for SKC

Three-fourths of Sporting Kansas City’s back line is on yellow card warning and would miss the return leg with a booking Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium. That’s hardly a surprise considering notoriously physical KC led the league in fouls and bookings this year. Still, this is surely a concern and could certainly influence Saturday’s contest at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Right back Chance Myers, left back Seth Sinovic, center back Aurelien Collin and forward Teal Bunbury all collected one caution in the two-game set against New England.

Two yellow cards in the playoffs means the offender sits out the following match. By MLS rules, however, if a player collects his second post-season booking in the second-leg of the conference finals, he will not miss the MLS Cup final.

  • Claudio Bieler? No problems here!

The curious case of Argentine forward Claudio Bieler gets more strange by the day.

He didn’t even travel last week for Sporting Kansas City’s road match to open the playoffs, at New England. That’s a pretty significant development for a Designated Player. So it fueled speculation that Bieler had found a spot in Vermes’ doghouse, perhaps for returning from recent injury out of shape.

Or, it could have just been that Bieler didn’t score enough after a hot start in his first year at Sporting Park, and that management was trying to run him off. Before Wednesday’s overtime strike, Bieler had not scored since Sept. 7 (and that was on a penalty kick). Dom Dwyer and Bunbury have gotten Bieler’s minutes since then.

Bieler didn’t start in Wednesday’s return leg – but did get in the game off the bench and help decide the series with a late goal. So, is there a problem? Manager Peter Vermes was asked about it Friday in a national teleconference.

He said there was no problem. Everything was fine.

Nothing to see here, folks. So just move along.

(MORE: What we learned from Sporting Kansas City’s win over New England)

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace

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  • Liverpool will still be without Philippe Coutinho due to a back injury.
  • Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne also miss out, but Daniel Sturridge is fit.
  • Crystal Palace has won three-straight games against Liverpool in the Premier League.
  • Both teams have scored in each of the last 10 meetings in all competitions between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, averaging 3.9 goals per match.

For the second-consecutive week, Liverpool will have to play without Philippe Coutinho, who is still missing with a back injury.

However, that didn’t seem to be an issue last week against Watford as Liverpool scored three goals, but it was the leaky defense that allowed Watford to score three goals themselves. (Watch live at 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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Crystal Palace meanwhile also allowed three goals last week but couldn’t score any of its own as it was humbled, 3-0 to Huddersfield. Crystal Palace’s squad is still struggling to adjust to manager Frank De Boer‘s free-flowing style of play and Wilfried Zaha will miss Saturday’s encounter.

But working in Crystal Palace’s favor is Christian Benteke and the club’s three straight wins over Liverpool. It will surely be an open and exciting match at Anfield.

What they’re saying

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on Crystal Palace: “We played Crystal Palace a few weeks ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure about the line-ups in that game, but Phil and Zaha were on the pitch and they will not be [this weekend]. I’m not sure if Adam played in this game, but that’s how it is…The only thing we know is it’s a tough game, probably both teams were not overly happy – we were not really disappointed about our first game, but it was how a first game can be, there are things to improve and it’s always like this, but even then we could’ve won which I think everybody knows.”

Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer on his system of play: “I am not a manager who suddenly after a defeat decides to change things around and as I say I did see some very positive points so I am not going to change the system. We don’t need to use adapting to a change in style of our play as an excuse, it’s not so difficult and quite easy to play. The Premier League is so competitive that you have to work hard as a team to get a result because if you don’t you get punished. The players don’t want to use the new system as an excuse and I think everybody understands what we want but we have to execute it better.”

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Prediction

Liverpool’s centerback pair of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren looked better midweek in the UEFA Champions League against Hoffenheim, but it’s another challenge to face Benteke and a motivated Crystal Palace team. Still, the speed of thought and pace on the field of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane should prove to be the difference. Liverpool 3-2 Crystal Palace

Blaise Matuidi completes move from PSG to Juventus

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PARIS (AP) France midfielder Blaise Matuidi completed his move from Paris Saint-Germain to Juventus on Friday.

Matuidi arrived in Turin for a medical on Wednesday but the move finally went through Friday, PSG said in a statement.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

No financial details were given, but Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the player, who had a year left on his contract. PSG did not say how long Matuidi’s contract is with the Italian champion.

The French club, runner-up to Monaco last year, is trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros ($261 million) and could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

(more…)

Premier League Preview: Swansea City vs. Manchester United

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  • Manchester United have won two of its last three Premier League meetings with Swansea City (D1), this after losing the previous three all by a 2-1 scoreline.
  • Romelu Lukaku is looking to become the fifth player to score in his first two PL apps for Man Utd (also Ibrahimovic, Martial, Macheda, Saha).
  • Swansea City will be without forward Fernando Llorente (transfer) and playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson (transfer to Everton)
  • Manchester United are still without Luke Shaw and Ashley Young, both of whom are injured.

Two teams on two completely different trajectories meet up in South Wales as Swansea City hosts Manchester United (Watch live at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Manchester United are trending up, coming off an impressive 4-0 win over West Ham in the opening weekend in which new signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic starred and dominated the game.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Swansea City on the other hand are trending down, slumping to a scoreless draw last week and this week seeing the club lose its top player, Gylfi Sigurdsson to Everton.

What they’re saying

Man United manager Jose Mourinho on his team’s start to the season: “It’s just the beginning. Last season, we started with three matches and nine points and we finished sixth. So it’s not because of a very good first day that I’m going to lose my stability and my discipline and let the players think differently from myself.”

Swansea City manager Paul Clement on facing Man United: “We have confidence because of what we did against Manchester United last season, while the record between these two clubs is quite interesting. Our record in the Premier League against Southampton, for example, is not very good, but against United it’s quite encouraging.

“We are looking forward to playing in front of our fans again and hopefully we can do well for them.”

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Prediction

Swansea City will have the force of its fans behind it as well as recent good performances against Man United. However, Jose Mourinho’s men should buck the trend and win this one without too much of a fight. Manchester United 3-0 Swansea City

Reports: Liverpool reject latest Barcelona offer for Coutinho

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Barcelona has reportedly upped its offer for the services of Philippe Coutinho. But the response from Liverpool has remained the same.

According to multiple reports, Liverpool has rejected a third Barcelona offer for Coutinho, believed to be worth up to $151.5 million. Coutinho put in a transfer request a week ago but Liverpool has remained firm on its desire to keep Coutinho for this season. Liverpool has not yet publicly commented on Barcelona’s latest transfer bid.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Coutinho meanwhile is still off the field for Liverpool due to a back injury, the club states.

“Phil is not available; he is not training so far, so there is nothing new,” manager Jurgen Klopp told reporters. “It is always how it is with injured players, there is no real time on when he is back.”

The Brazilian midfielder signed a new five-year contract with Liverpool just last January and the deal doesn’t have a buy-out clause. But should Liverpool accept a new bid for Coutinho, he’d become the second-most expensive transfer behind fellow Brazilian Neymar.

It’s unclear whether Barcelona will shift focus to other targets such as Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele or Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann as a replacement for Neymar.